Iron Ages

I find myself in Pittsburgh again.  We set out from the former steel city of Bethlehem and ended up in the former steel city on the other side of the state.  I’m not here for the metal, of course, but to visit family.  Making our way over the great eroded spine of the ancient Appalachians, I was thinking of how cities often take on the identity of their industries.  Pittsburgh and Bethlehem vied with each other for their facility with unyielding iron—one of the technologies so important to human history that we still use the Iron Age as a marker of advancing technology.  Pittsburgh’s now a tech city, much reduced in size from its heyday when only fifteen cities in the country were larger.  Bethlehem, it seems, is still trying to figure out exactly what it wants to be.

Back in college, I used to work in a church in the south hills.  I haven’t been to Windover Hills United Methodist Church since those days.  I was weighing my future then, deciding to attend Boston University School of Theology—the seminary the pastor had attended—and exposing myself to liberal thinking rather than more of the conservative milquetoast that was mistaken for milk and honey at Grove City College.  The memories that attended the drive were powerful and poignant.  I only lived in Pittsburgh two summers—the second working as a bagger at a grocery store (I should’ve known then where a college degree in religious studies might lead, even if summa cum laude).  As iron sharpens iron, so the Good Book says.

Recently I tried to recall all the addresses at which I’ve lived.  This seems particularly important because many of the buildings no longer stand and I greatly fear being erased.  Those of us who write often do.  I can recall the cities and even a few of the streets.  Numbers often escape me, for they seem to be mere place holders.  My days in Pittsburgh were decades ago, when life was really only just beginning.  Now I drive these hills with memories my only maps, wondering if I can find the place I’m seeking.  This place is part of me, even as Bethlehem is now becoming such a piece.  Cities change depending on the laws of supply and demand that can, as we know, even break iron.  And those of us who live in such places know that any industry is subject to memory, whether of God or of steel.

The Dots

Connections have always fascinated me.  Maybe it’s because life is a random stream of stuff constantly thrown at you that makes a mockery of any plans you might try to implement.  Me at Nashotah House?  Really?  Nevertheless, these events shape us and everything that happens thereafter is seen in light of them.  So when connections occur amid this continual flux, I sit up and take notice.  For example, I had never thought of moving to eastern Pennsylvania.  Now, around Christmastime, I find myself not far from Bethlehem.  Bethlehem was so named because it was founded on Christmas Eve by Moravians who’d settled in the area.  Although not counted among the most numerous of Protestants today, Moravians had a profound effect on the founder of Methodism, John Wesley.  In fact, he met Count Zinzendorf, whose name appears on this handsome plaque in historic downtown Bethlehem, at a pivotal moment in his own spiritual journey.

Having grown up Fundamentalist, the United Methodist Church would not have been our choice, although we had unwittingly attended one of the Methodist offshoots—the Church of the Nazarene—from time to time.  In one of those unplanned things, we found ourselves in Rouseville, Pennsylvania, where the only Protestant church was United Methodist.  Once ensconced in the UMC it was my plan to become a minister in that tradition.  That led me to Boston University School of Theology where I first learned about the Wesley-Zinzendorf connection.  It was also there that I met my wife.  And subsequently joined the Episcopal Church.  Why?  John Wesley had been adamant that his followers not drop out of the church in which he was an ordained priest.  I was only following instructions.

Had that not happened I would never have had my first, and so far only, full-time academic job.  Nashotah House was conservative, and I was not.  We nevertheless had a connection.  Growing up I’d barely heard of Wisconsin, let alone planned to live there.  When Nashotah no longer required my services my career had to change as well.  None of this was in the plan.  Who plans to move to New Jersey?  And now everyone thinks of me as an editor, a fallback position if there ever was one.  Since I work in New York City, moving back to my native Pennsylvania wasn’t really on the agenda.  An outside agent led to that.  So I find myself near Bethlehem in the Christmas season, staring at Count Zinzendorf’s name, which I first heard of in a seminary now far away.  Connections, even with those long gone, are always worth noting.

Galilean Blues

Call me nostalgic, but growing up Fundie, “Capernaum” tripped easily off my lips.  In fact, it was a word I heard very frequently at church, always pronounced “kap-er-NEE-um” (please pardon my amateur phonetics).  Even though no one I knew had ever been to Israel, we all knew it was in Galilee and that it figured large in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth (although we assumed he was surnamed “Christ”).  When I attended seminary I was surprised to hear the geonym pronounced “ka-per-NUM.”  It sounded so sophisticated—aristocratic, even.  Still, everyone at Boston University School of Theology knew what, and roughly where, it was.  It was a household name, no matter how you pronounced it.

Spellcheck disagrees.  It doesn’t recognize one of the most famous places in the New Testament.  Now, I’m aware that my view of things is idiosyncratic.  This blog should be proof of that.  Those who grow up from Fundamentalism often know this experience—something that everyone knew when you were young and informed is arcane knowledge to the rest of the world where Kardashians and Sedarises are household names.  The Bible, irrelevant at best, is a foreign country.  Then the religious right comes to power and everyone’s confused.  They don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world.  They say kap-er-NEE-um.  Others scratch their heads and glance at their knee caps.

When I visited ancient Capernaum it required some imagination to reconstruct what it had been, back in the day.  Since the ruins were relatively recent—only a millennium or two—some of the buildings were still above ground, including the famous synagogue.  Even among the unchurched archaeologists, everyone knew the connection of the city to Jesus of Nazareth.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the programmers responsible for spellcheck recognize the name.  Kardashian doesn’t get a red underline on my word processor.  Even in the first century, however, Galilee was a backwater (with real water!).  Important people came from big cities and had family connections.

Some things don’t change much over the millennia.  The famous often find their spotlight because of connections.  If the deity decided to incarnate today, s/he’d know to get a website put together first.  And it would help to have some product endorsements.  Even salvation at a click isn’t enough to draw most people in.  Of course, the matter of name—excuse me, “brand”—is important.  More than anything, you want something people can pronounce.  And just to be safe, anchor it to either New York or the city named The Angels.

The Distortion of Absence

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.  After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar.  For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year.  Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day.  Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like.  A fairly common example is a college dorm room.  When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it.  It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color.  Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”

The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters.  Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like.  It is close to what you expected, but not exactly.  The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off.  It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted.  On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties.  745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was.  In my mind it had become far narrower.  It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past.  It made me wonder—is any of this really real?  Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?

I recently spent a day working in the New York office.  While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not.  Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was.  Or did I?  I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track.  It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan.  Unheimlich.  I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out.  Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion?  The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting.  By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away.  But somehow, the monsters remained. 

Girls to Men

Seminary in the 1980s was a time of endless debate. Some of my classmates at Boston University School of Theology thought me too conservative—I’d made progress from my Fundamentalist days, but these things wear off slowly. Part of the issue, however, was that I look at things in terms of history. (That’s how I ended up teaching Hebrew Bible although my work is generally history of religions.) I remember an argument over changing a text from reading “man” to “human.” The latter, of course, still has the offensive root, but language is only so flexible. My thought at the time (which has changed since then) was that English “man” derives from German “Man.” In German the noun is masculine since all nouns have gender, but it can refer to either a female or a male. “Man,” in origin, is gender-neutral on the human side of the equation. Mark Twain once famously wrote an essay on the barbarities of the German language where he highlights this.

I’d studied German seriously in high school. After four years of the language I felt that I could understand it in a way that comes when you begin the think of certain expressions and wonder how you say that in English. I had come from strongly Teutonic stock on my mother’s side, and German felt quite natural to me. Of course, in college I had little opportunity to use it. Even less so at seminary, so the details had begun to slip considerably. If “Man” could mean “woman” what was the problem, I wondered. Then I started to think of it from a woman’s perspective. As English speakers, “man” is an exclusive term. It refers to males. Over time it has come to refer to males only. Retaining it in hymns or Bible translations makes them exclusive. We need language to meet new ways of thinking.

The other day I was consulting an Oxford dictionary for something. My eye fell on the word “girl.” To my surprise, I read that “girl” originally referred to a small child of either gender in its germanic roots. This is an archaic usage to be sure, but it helped to explain old photographs where toddler boys were dressed as girls and had long, flowing hair. The young were girls, the adults were men. Gender, I have come to see over the years, is a concept that doesn’t conform to simple binaries. Intersex individuals don’t fit into the either/or paradigm. Language struggles to keep up with reality. Traditionally we all started out as girls and ended up as men. And those would be fighting words these days, whether in seminary or out.

Alma Mater Matter

I was a teen-age religion major. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but I did start college at 19 and, being a first generation matriculant, had no idea about majors. No idea about colleges either. The school you choose stays with you for your life—especially if you decide to go into academia. A couple of recent events brought this home to me again. Grove City College is stridently conservative. Since I was raised Republican, it felt like a good fit at the time. It was cheap and close to home, and since my parental contribution was a total sum of zero, both of these factors counted heavily. Overlooked by many a hiring committee, it was also academically rigorous at the time. For better or worse, it’s now on my permanent record. Enough ancient history.

Recently a colleague asked me about an author, noting his undergraduate degree was from a school not unlike Grove City. I saw myself from the outside (yet again). Conservatism can be a lifestyle choice. My fellow religion-major grovers mostly went on to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary or other bastions of further conservative thought. Their minds were already made up. In their early twenties, no less. I headed to Boston University, at the time the most liberal of the United Methodist seminaries, by reputation. But still my record says “Grove City.” My academic writings should leave no doubt as to my scholarly outlook (most of these papers are available on Academia.edu), but there is always a shadow of suspicion over a former grover. You can’t change your alma mater, no matter what the next decision you make says about you.

Then I came across a recent writing sample from one of my Grove City professors who’s still on the faculty. This piece showed that as this faculty member was in the early eighties, so he is still today. Biblical literalism all the way down. With over three-and-a-half decades to read, that’s incredible to me. I guess I just don’t share the kind of arrogance that declares you got it right the first time and that everything you read confirms a literal Adam and Eve. And a snake and a tree. What am I to think when I see a conservative undergraduate school on someone’s academic record? I would hope that I would know to look at the next step to see what that reveals. I am a grover, but a bad grover, I guess. You have to know how to read a permanent record.

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Signed, Sealed, Forgotten

the_seventh_sign

I’m a little ashamed to admit it. With such a long list of moody horror movies out there, I gave in to watching The Seventh Sign again. 1988 was a momentous year. I had graduated from Boston University School of Theology the year before and had been functionally unemployed, as befits a future adjunct professor. I had joined the Episcopal Church, cutting off my chances of ordination in my previous United Methodist sect. I’d been accepted into doctoral programs at Oxford, St Andrews, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh but couldn’t afford any of them. I proposed to my future wife and by the end of the year had married her. In the midst of it all a friend convinced me to go see The Seventh Sign, then in theaters. A typical end of the world movie, The Seventh Sign was a “see once” movie to me, but I guess I’m weaker than I thought.

The movie got me to thinking about the end of the world. Not literally, but rather how we came to have such a strange idea. As creatures conscious of our own deaths, I suppose it’s natural that we think everything comes to an end. The mythical scenario of “the end of days,” however, is cobbled together from various pieces of the Bible, like some distorted, religious picture puzzle. The Book of Revelation doesn’t give a coherent story of the future. In seminary I learned that it was because Revelation is actually about what was happening in the Roman Empire in the first century, not about what would happen in the days when I happened to find myself conscious and eating Kraft macaroni and cheese, mixed with water instead of milk and working for Ritz Camera. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. That was my own kind of personal apocalypse, I guess.

The Seventh Sign is unusual in that a Jewish boy, Avi, and a lapsed Christian woman, Abby (who rents a room to the new incarnation of Jesus who lives, apparently, quite a lot like I did at the time) have to figure this out together. Tying in several other mythological motifs, the number of seals broken is, if I count correctly, only five. The world is saved by self-sacrifice, as is generally expected, and everyone ends up feeling let down. It is a downer of a movie, and not very scary for a horror film. What struck me was how many scenes I remembered so precisely. So I guess it did manage to impress me on some level, back in 1988. I selected Edinburgh University and now once again, find myself outside the institution I covet. I’m still waiting to see what happens with those two last seals.